NASA's Origins & the Dawn of the Space Age

 Monographs in Aerospace History # 10


When future generations review the history of the twentieth century, they will undoubtedly judge humanity's movement into space, with both machines and people, as one of its seminal developments. Even at this juncture, the compelling nature of spaceflight—and the activity that it has engendered on the part of many peoples and governments—makes the U.S. civil space program a significant area of investigation. People from all avenues of experience and levels of education share an interest in the drama of spaceflight.

This monograph relates for a general audience the origins of the space age, the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the first tentative steps toward an operational capability to undertake space exploration. To a very real extent, NASA emerged in 1958 out of the "cold war" rivalries of the United States and the Soviet Union, which were engaged in a broad battle over the ideologies and allegiances of the nonaligned nations of the world. Space exploration was one major area contested. The Soviets gained the upper hand in this competition on October 4, 1957, when they launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, as part of a larger scientific effort associated with the International Geophysical Year.

While U.S. officials congratulated the Soviet Union for this accomplishment, clearly many Americans thought that the Soviet Union had staged a tremendous coup for the communist system at U.S. expense. Because of this perception, Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, establishing the new agency with a broad mandate to explore and use space for the benefit "of all mankind." NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, absorbing into it the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics intact—its 8,000 employees, an annual budget of $100 million, three major research laboratories (Langley Aeronautical Laboratory, Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, and Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory), and two small test facilities. NASA soon added other facilities.

NASA began to conduct space missions within months of its creation, especially Project Mercury to ascertain the possibilities of human spaceflight. Even so, these activities were constrained by a modest budget and a measured pace on the part of NASA leadership. That changed rather suddenly on May 25, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy, responding to perceived challenges to U.S. leadership in science and technology, announced a lunar landing effort that would place an American on the Moon before the end of the decade.

This monograph relates the story of those early years and reprints facsimile copies of key documents. At the time of the NASA's fortieth anniversary, it seems fitting to revisit its origins and to reflect on its accomplishments since.

This is the tenth in a series of monographs prepared under the auspices of the NASA History Division. The Monographs in Aerospace History series is designed to provide a wide variety of investigations relative to the history of aeronautics and space. These publications are intended to be tightly focused in terms of subject, relatively short in length, and reproduced in an inexpensive format to allow for timely and broad dissemination to researchers in aerospace history. Suggestions for additional publications in the Monographs in Aerospace History series are welcome.

Signature of Roger Launius
Roger D. Launius
Chief Historian
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
July 1, 1998